I finished Denis Johnson’s sprawling Vietnam War epic Tree of Smoke the same weekend that I finished James Joyce’s Ulysses. I managed to do this thanks to BBC America’s fantastic audio book version of Tree of Smoke, read by Will Patton–there’s simply no other way I would’ve managed to read both books. After finishing Tree of Smoke, that special depression reserved for only the best of books set in (you know that feeling–where the book you looked forward to every day is now over, and you feel a little sad and want more). I immediately started listening to it again (after I finished Ulysses I simply felt exhausted–Molly Bloom’s infamous monologue was fantastic (and sexy!), and I read it in one sitting, but still…the book inspires a special fatigue. More on all of this in a future post. I only bring the two up together as they are both very long books I finished this weekend; without pretense or shame, I attest that I enjoyed Johnson’s book over Joyce’s).
I plan to buy and reread (not sure if reread is the right verb) Tree of Smoke as soon as soon as it comes out in paperback. For now, here’s a very brief review: go buy this book and read it immediately. If you don’t have time to read it, get the 18-disc, 24 hour audiobook. Will Patton’s reading is astounding. He manages to meet and express the expansive range of voices and viewpoints in Johnson’s novel–newbie CIA spooks, double agents, overwhelmed relief workers, nihilist GIs, zealous field operatives, and more–in a way that brings the appropriate depth and personality to each character without ever being obtrusive or obnoxious (as can sometimes happen with audiobooks). Patton’s reading is on par with the best audiobook readings I’ve ever heard, and those of you who frequently listen to audiobooks know the difference this can make. He seems to fully appreciate the scope and magnitude of Johnson’s piece on Vietnam (sidenote: Patton played a bit-part in the underrated and overlooked 1999 film adaptation of Johnson’s novel-in-stories collection, Jesus’ Son).
But I’m not really doing justice to Johnson’s novel here. To call it a Vietnam war novel is like calling Prince a simple R&B artist–a facile description that doesn’t capture the subject. To be sure, it is a Vietnam war novel, but one that self-consciously riffs off of both The Ugly American and The Quiet American–with shades of Apocalypse Now to boot. At the same time, Johnson deftly injects mythology and philosophy directly into his character’s voices, into their conversations and letters, into the books they read and the papers they write, without ever once clumsily forcing a theme or motif. Unlike lesser writers, Johnson never slaps the reader in the face with all his clever ideas. Instead, all his clever ideas–meditations on colonialism, war, the minotaur myth, self-sacrifice, religion, data and analysis, love and betrayal–are part of an enthralling plot propelled by the most realistic dialog I’ve heard in a long, long time. If a better book is published in 2007, please let me know. Highly highly highly recommended.